Province announces plan to ramp up efforts to combat ‘vile’ crime of human trafficking that’s increased exponentially in Niagara

Paul Forsyth Niagara This Week – Niagara Falls Friday, February 26, 2021

Drive down to the tourist district of Niagara Falls and you see gleaming, skyscraper hotels reaching to the sky, offering world-class amenities and plush beds for weary travellers.

But in many of those hotels, something dark and ominous is hidden away. Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture, calls it “Ontario’s dirty little secret.”

It’s human trafficking, and it’s an ugly scab on the underbelly of society in this province.

“There is sex trafficking of children as young as 11 in Ontario,” she said on Friday, as she announced proposed new legislation and amendments to various existing provincial laws to build on the province’s $307-million anti-human trafficking strategy launched in March of last year.

“This is happening in every single hotel in Ontario,” said MacLeod.

She was joined in a virtual news conference by Niagara Regional Police Deputy Chief Brett Flynn, YWCA of Niagara executive director Elisabeth Zimmermann, Niagara Falls Canada Hotel Association executive director Doug Birrell, and Niagara West riding MPP Sam Oosterhoff.

MacLeod said the changes amount to a “whole government” approach involving numerous different ministries to attack trafficking in a full-court press that will involve unprecedented collaboration among police, the accommodation industry, the province and agencies such as Zimmermann’s that provides supports for victims of trafficking.

The legislative changes will involve:

• Increasing penalties for traffickers who interfere with a child in the care of a children’s aid society;

• clarifying how and when police services can access information from hotel guest registries to help deter trafficking and identify and locate victims;

• Requiring companies advertising sexual services to have a dedicated contact to support investigations into suspected human trafficking;

• Increasing the government’s ability to collect non-personal data to better understand and respond to human trafficking;

• Strengthening the abilities of police and children’s aid societies to protect exploited children.

Zimmermann said Niagara, on a major transportation corridor and an international border, is a hotbed of human trafficking. That trafficking has grown exponentially in recent years, she said.

“In our work with the YWCA … we have seen an increasing number of young women who have been victims of trafficking entering into our programs,” she said. The YWCA is also seeing via its school drop-in programs that more girls have experienced luring from traffickers, she said.

“We know in Niagara it is happening across communities,” said Zimmermann.

Flynn said police agencies work closely together to combat trafficking, but said they need to partner with agencies from outside law enforcement to tackle the problem.

“One of the most important elements I can stress about today’s announcement is the focus on collaboration across sectors,” he said.

Birrell said his hotel association is ramping up training among all hotel staff members to better detect signs of trafficking, in combination with developing an action plan with police.

“We know that traffickers unfortunately sometimes use hotels to ply their trade,” he said. “This is a serious and ugly criminal activity. Eliminating hotels as a venue for trafficking can have a major impact to help dismantle trafficking rings.”

MacLeod said human trafficking has become one of the fastest growing international crimes. The province said in a news release that the average age of recruitment into sex trafficking is about 13 years old, and about two-thirds of reporting trafficking cases in Canada occur in Ontario.

Oosterhoff said trafficking is a “vile” crime that requires a multi-jurisdictional collaboration to attack head on.

“Working together we can make strides to eradicate this terrible crime,” he said.

Paul Forsyth is a veteran of more than 30 years of community journalism who covers a wide range of issues in Niagara Falls and other parts of south Niagara, as well as topics of regional significance in Niagara.